Albany WG&L Interim General Manager Tom Berry resigns
In an exclusive interview with The Albany Herald, Water, Gas & Light Commission Interim General Manager Tom Berry explains why he resigned Thursday morning and says some of Albany's elected leaders, who he says base decisions on assumptions instead of facts, are hindering the community's ability to grow.
ALBANY — Maybe it was an ominous sign that the lights went out in the middle of the Water, Gas & Light Commission’s board meeting Thursday morning.
As the second of two monthly board meetings wound down Thursday, Tom Berry dropped a bombshell on board members by announcing he would step down immediately from his position as interim general manager. Berry said after the meeting his decision was based on the “assinine discussion” of a proposed Albany City Charter change at Wednesday’s Albany City Commission meeting.
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“You’ve got people (on the City Commission) who don’t understand utilities and don’t want to understand utilities,” Berry said. “It’s all limited by their own politics. You’ve got elected officials so wrapped up in themselves, they can’t see what this community’s future could be.
“Albany has the most dysfunctional political environment I’ve ever seen. The politics are the worst here I’ve seen anywhere. And what’s sad is that this is a community with tremendous potential. The people have got to fix this. If they don’t get up in arms over the dysfunction of that (City) Commission, you won’t get more jobs here. No one will come.”
Berry spoke in generalities about Wednesday’s City Commission discussion initially, but he eventually called commissioners out by name.
“If you don’t get the community to chew on Roger Marietta, Jon Howard, Bobby Coleman and Tommie Postell, you won’t get that charter change passed, and this city will not move forward,” Berry said.
His reference was to a discussion during a pre-briefing before Wednesday’s City Commission meeting at which Coleman said he opposed a charter change that would allow the WG&L board to make an immediate decision on rights-of-way acquisitions up to $250,000 without approval from the City Commission.
“The ones elected by the people of the community should be the ones making that decision, not appointed officials,” Coleman said Wednesday. “I say we should go slow and easy on these kinds of changes; there’s no rush. The reason the city took over WG&L is because they went rogue over there and started acting on their own. If we give them this kind of authority, we’re letting them go back there.”
Postell agreed with Coleman, jumping on a theme that has long been a pet peeve of his.
“If we allow them to spend $250,000, they’ll be in charge of us, not us in charge of them,” the Ward VI commissioner said. “That’s what led them to doing illegal things over there before.”
City Manager James Taylor said to undo a charter change that was approved by the commission would take as long as three months, but he noted, “It takes 90 days to make a charter change, but it takes 30 seconds to tell me you don’t want (any action taken by the WG&L board).”
Postell seemed satisfied with that response, saying, “That’s all it takes?” When Taylor responded, “Damned, right,” Postell said, “OK, well I can go along with that.”
But Berry had obviously heard enough. When Coleman again said the City Commission should make a decision on any matter that would cost more than $40,000, Berry said, “That’s why you have a WG&L board. It’s clear from the conversation around this table that you don’t understand these issues.”
When informed Thursday that Berry had announced his resignation, Coleman said, “My reaction to that is simply this: Mr. Berry is entitled to his opinion, but obviously not the facts. As a city commissioner, my job is to ask the questions. I don’t answer to Mr. Berry or Mr. Taylor. I answer to the people who elected me. I want the city to see economic recovery as much as anyone, but Mr. Taylor is trying to push everything through in the time he has remaining here. What’s the hurry? We’ve got to be able to pick things up with whoever replaces him.
“Mr. Berry said last night ‘That’s why we have the WG&L board,’ as if they’re smart and we’re dumb. Well, you can tell everyone that when it comes to what people think of Bobby Coleman, ask him if he cares. The answer is no. I care about the people of this city. We had a city government and a Water, Gas & Light Commission in Albany before James Taylor and Tom Berry got here, and we’ll have one when they leave.”
Marietta, meanwhile, said he was puzzled why Berry had included him in his criticism of the board.
“To say that I’m opposed to the charter change is the farthest thing from the truth,” the Ward IV commissioner said after hearing about Thursday’s meeting. “I simply asked (at Wednesday’s City Commission meeting) about some inefficiencies. I voted against the city making WG&L a department under the City Commission because I did not want to be responsible for rate increases. That’s what WG&L is for, but we’ve been put in that position.
“I offered constructive criticism (during Wednesday’s meeting) because I think I owe it to the citizens to scrutinize the issues that affect them. I don’t understand where Mr. Berry got the idea that I was against the charter change. I think we need to hold a joint city/Water, Gas & Light meeting. We have to make this work.”
Berry said after Thursday’s meeting that he offered to meet with Coleman to explain some of the complex WG&L issues.
“He (Coleman) said in a public meeting that he didn’t understand these issues,” Berry said. “I tried to get him to meet with me, but he never did. Of course, I met individually with all of the commissioners, had lunch with them — paid for it out of my pocket — but as it turns out that was a waste of my money.”
Coleman said he met with Berry before the interim GM was hired but that his conversation then did not gibe with Berry’s actions once he took office.
“We talked before Mr. Berry took the job, and I told him then we needed to proceed with caution,” Coleman said. “He agreed during those conversations, but because Mr. Taylor is trying to push these changes through, he changed his approach. The common thread in all this is leadership.”
Meanwhile, some members of the five-member WG&L Commission, stunned by Berry’s announcement, said they’re contemplating resignations. Reportedly, Bob Hutchinson, who said after Berry’s announcement that he would “need to do some soul-searching” in re-evaluating his position on the board, turned in his resignation after Thursday’s meeting. Hutchinson was not immediately available for comment.
“As a board member, I think it is our job to look at all options in making WG&L the best it can be for the citizens of Albany,” Chad Warbington said. “I don’t think some of the members of the City Commission see things that way.
“I can tell you this: We have an aggressive budget this year, and we will not meet the goals of that budget without a knowledgeable person like Tom Berry working with us.”
City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who took Mayor Dorothy Hubbard up on her Wednesday challenge for city commissioners to attend WG&L meetings, apologized for the commission’s action Wednesday and asked Berry to take some time to reconsider his decision.
Berry said his decision had been made.
“What I witnessed last night was a board pushing a vote on something they obviously knew nothing about,” Fletcher said. “Now that board has run a good man off.”
In a moment of reflection after Thursday’s meeting, Berry said he’d stayed in Albany too long.
“I’ve always said in a situation like this (an interim appointment), you don’t need to stay long enough to develop relationships,” he said. “I had grown to care too much about this community. As a matter of fact, I feel safe in saying I care more about Albany right now than several of these folks on the City Commission.
“You have a lot of good things going on here. You’ve got that Deal-Closing Fund, strong EDC leadership, a great WG&L board — the best I’ve ever worked with. You have the components in place to move forward, to make Albany the centerpiece of this region instead of a laughingstock.”